A unique beast of a movie, An American Werewolf In London is something of a hybrid of a film. One moment it is laugh out loud funny and the next it is shriek out loud scary.
It’s hard to think of a film that has melded horror and comedy to better effect, although at the time of release apparently people didn’t really understand the shifts in tone.
The film charts the journey of two American friends, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), who are backpacking across the Yorkshire Moors. It’s a memorable trip for all the wrong reasons as one is killed and the other is savaged by a werewolf. David lives but keeps seeing Jack, in various states of decomposition, warning him that on the next full moon he too shall become a rampaging werewolf. David’s visions get weirder until, finally, he transforms in the middle of London.
Jack’s scenes are even harder to watch knowing that the year after this film was released Dunne’s sister was murdered by her boyfriend, she had just completed work as the older sister in Poltergeist.
In many ways this is a love letter to classic Universal horror, Director John Landis is certainly a fan, even though – pulling something of a Jaws – we don’t get our transformation scene until an hour into the film.
That Universal-feel is perhaps best felt when our two wandering Americans stumble upon The Slaughtered Lamb pub and it falls silent. It’s a classic moment in a classic film with its pentagrams, missed dart boards, an on the money Brian Glover and a young Rik Mayall.
The lack of a lycanthrope for that first 60 minutes doesn’t mean we don’t get plenty of scares that still leave scars. The initial attack on the Moors – if only they had stuck to the road as warned – is swift but shocking, especially as moments earlier they were laughing and joking.
Then we have the dream sequences, particularly the – never explained but no need to as everyone was too busy being scared – vampiric David in his hospital bed, looking like an extra from Salem’s Lot.
And then there is the scene of David back home with his mum and dad and his younger brother and sister. They are watching The Muppet Show (big at the time and Frank Oz AKA Missy Piggy and Fozzie Bear is also in the film) when the doorbell rings. David’s dad answers the door to be blasted away by Nazi werewolf monster thugs. It’s the scene WTF would perfectly sum up had it existed in 1981.
Left field, unexpected and downright disturbing leaving a mark on its viewers – in their pants probably – and mentally for decades to come. What’s great about this though is that when David wakes up his nurse, Jenny Agutter, goes to the window and is promptly stabbed by one of the Nazi beasts. Nearly pulling the Carrie trick midway through the film. Waking up a second time David exclaims ‘holy shit.’ Too right!
When the full moon arrives we are instore for a cinematic treat. The transformation scene is still the best committed to film and was all done practically and in camera. No wonder the rumour is that the best make up Oscar category was created specially to honour this film and Rick Baker. And it doesn’t take place in some dark alley, it’s in a fully lit living room.
As well as being a technical marvel it really conveys the painfulness of it all. To all intense and purposes this is David’s death scene.
And there’s something that is still brilliant about the scene knowing that it was all done on set and not one pixel at a time in a computer (take note Van Helsing and An American Werewolf in Paris – lame dogs both).
Post transformation we have a flurry of attacks, including one that makes fantastic use of the tube and you can’t fail to think about it next time you find yourself in an empty tube station at night or deserted escalator.
With its similar time-frame, a group of memorable British character actors, its UK. Setting, it’s denial of what is unfolding and its tragic ending I always saw it as something of a companion piece to The Omen in many ways.
Agutter is a compelling and a memorable love interest, but it’s Doctor Hirsch who I love most out of the supporting characters. Especially when he is in full investigation mode and travels back to The Slaughtered Lamb. He always seemed a bit like the David Warner character in The Omen to me.
Although David was cursed unlike the supposed curse of the omen this film was not, although it’s dedication in celebrating the marriage of Charles and Diana didn’t do them any favours.